In most films, in order to make a character interesting or relatable, the narrative will force the character to undergo some sort of evolution. Or, in the absence of character growth, the character is threatened with some sort of consequence for their inability to change.
In the holiday film Elf (2003), we meet Buddy (Will Ferrell), a human raised at the North Pole who believes he is a member of Santa’s workforce. Upon discovering he is, in fact, a regular human being and not the elven child of Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), he sets out on a voyage to New York City in search of his real father, Walter (James Caan). On the surface, Buddy's internal journey doesn’t appear very rich. The Buddy that starts the film is largely the same Buddy who we see in the end; goofy, childish, and full of quirky holiday cheer he can’t control. But what happens throughout the course of the film is beneath the saccharine charm of Buddy's exterior, he follows a path that leads in appreciating and understanding himself.
Before Buddy ever leaves the North Pole, we see that his output in Santa’s workshop is far less than the "true" elves. He is limited by his humanity, and crafts one toy at the speed his peers do ten. He calls himself a “cotton-headed ninny muggins” and sulks. Because he is a man, he’s bad at being an elf. His journey during the film is to become accepting of this reality, and instead of dwelling on the negatives, to find reasons why his uniqueness are a blessing. In a way, his evolution comes through not evolving. He needs to learn that there is nothing wrong with being different.
At first, arriving in New York City only reaffirms the ways in which he is different. His father thinks he’s some insane holiday gag telegram until Buddy drops the name of someone from Walter’s past. Nonetheless, nothing he does for Walter is enough -- the man sees him as a freak. Though Walter’s wife (played by Mary Steenburgen) is understanding and supportive of Buddy's unique quirks (like his solid sugar diet), she too sees him as unusual. The only person capable of appreciating Buddy for who he is without irony is Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), a department store worker serving as an elf in the Santa’s Workshop section of the store. She lacks holiday spirit and Buddy lacks basic social skills -- together they find something more within themselves. Jovie is largely responsible for Buddy coming to terms with who he is. She sees a wonderful person underneath the ridiculous outward image of a gigantic man in an elf costume. In turn, his unstoppable joy and enthusiasm brighten her life and transform her from someone locked in a state of depression to someone who enjoys life.
Throughout the picture, the secondary force driving the narrative is a general lack of holiday spirit among people. Santa’s sleigh runs on belief, and if nobody believes in him, he won’t be able to deliver presents. When Santa’s sleigh breaks in the park, only Buddy can repair it using his North Pole knowledge, and Jovie incites the crowd to fill the atmosphere with holiday cheer. Even Walter finally comes around, making a huge jump from someone who only cares about himself to someone willing to sacrifice for the sake of family and togetherness.
Buddy’s internal arc is subtle, but comes through an appreciation of self and the impact he has on those around him. Buddy is aware of otherwise overlooked details in the world, but can’t figure out how to adapt to them. When he finally realizes he doesn’t need to change, he simply needs to accept who he is, he completes a variation of the classic innocence-to-experience character arc that makes for a charming concept.